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China Stresses Common Threats, Security as It Pushes for Iran-Pakistan Engagement

  • Since the Taliban retook control of neighbouring Afghanistan, concerns have grown over more frequent extremist activities
  • Beijing is pushing for peace solutions, and Pakistan is a key regional partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure plan

With the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, concerns have grown about more frequent extremist activities. A recently created mechanism for counterterrorism dialogue reflects both the concerns and desires for neighbouring Pakistan and Iran to deepen security ties with China, according to analysts.

China – mindful of a growing wariness from groups that perceive it as the “new enemy” – is attempting to mend deeply fractured ties between the two countries in the hope of bolstering individual counterterrorism capabilities to avoid spillover effects.

“From the Chinese perspective, the issue that has been the greatest concern, is the fact that you’re seeing a growing plurality of different groups talking about China as the enemy,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Pantucci said the spectrum of contempt has expanded from mainly Uygur militants to separatist and jihadist groups in Pakistan, which have targeted Chinese interests in the region as they mobilised people and resources.

If Pakistan and Iran get along, they will focus on the threats China is worried about rather than clashing with each otherRaffaello Pantucci, terrorism researcher

“It is also within China’s thinking that if Pakistan and Iran get along, they will focus on the threats China is worried about rather than clashing with each other,” he said.

Recently, China announced that it would begin regular anti-terror talks with Pakistan and Iran “to tackle the cross-border movement of terrorists”, the first dialogue of its kind with the two countries, which have had ongoing border clashes over long-standing disputes.

The region has faced increasingly frequent terrorist activities since the Taliban retook power in 2021 after the United States withdrew its remaining troops in Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban returned to power, separatist groups, including the Uygur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) in Pakistan, have reportedly begun consolidating their forces inside the country – the types of insurgents that China is most concerned about.

The groups have been particularly active in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, raising concerns from both Pakistan and Iran, which borders the province, as well as from China, whose people and projects in the area have been frequently targeted against.

China has established key infrastructure projects in the area, including the Gwadar Port, part of the US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative.

Alarms were set off in Beijing in 2021, when a suicide bomb at Gwadar Port, which the BLA claimed responsibility for, targeted Chinese nationals, killing two.

Violence and instability in the region have prompted Beijing to “firstly establish a preventive mechanism, so that both Pakistan and Iran can also protect themselves better against terrorist threats emanating from the Afghan territory”, said Zoon Ahmed Khan, a foreign-policy analyst and research fellow at Tsinghua University’s Belt and Road Strategy Institute.

The dialogue is also aimed at bringing Pakistan and Iran together to coordinate on the “growing militant activities on the Pakistan-Iran border” – as a first step to strengthen trust and prepare for a future quadrilateral dialogue, which also involves Afghanistan, Khan added.

Pakistan-Iran relations have been strained due to cross-border attacks by Pakistani militants along their shared border between the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan, and the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

Khan admitted that despite mutual intent, working with the Taliban government was “challenging” and further coordination with the Kabul authorities would be “a medium and long-term strategy” for Beijing.

Last month, when the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan met for the first time since the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, China’s Qin Gang said Beijing was worried about the safety of “Chinese nationals, institutions and projects”.

The three sides issued a joint statement afterwards and stressed the need for a “peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”, which required deterrence of terrorist activities and highlighted threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

“[But] the Taliban have not been able to crack down on the TTP, BLA, among other outfits that directly threaten Chinese and Pakistanis in relation to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, despite it being directly demanded,” Khan said.

Beijing has started to take a more cautious approach in its engagements with the Taliban regime. One of its largest investments in Afghanistan, the Mes Aynak copper mine, has been suspended for years due to instability.

Pantucci, the terrorism expert with Nanyang Technological University, said that there was barely any trust between Beijing and Kabul, reflected by the “clear message” from their recent diplomatic interactions.

The day after the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin highlighted the first “written pledge of not allowing the ETIM and other forces to conduct terrorist actions and activities”, adding that it was “of great significance to the future development of China-Afghanistan relations”.

“The fact that they’re having to [make a big point about it] says to me that they are concerned. [And] that’s not going to happen,” he said.

The new initiative is also an attempt by Beijing to improve relations with Tehran, Pantucci said. “[Iran] is probably the one that they have got the least strong security relationship on this particular issue [of terrorism]”, he said.

The fact that China and Iran officially urged Afghanistan to end restrictions on women’s rights despite the risks of irritating the Taliban “reflects a real concern that they both have, and also a desire for them to kind of think about cooperation together”, Pantucci said, referring to the joint statement released after a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing in February.

The [trilateral] dialogue occurs at a time of major changes in the diplomacy of the Middle East and South AsiaJean-Loup Samaan, Mideast researcher

In their joint statement, the two countries also “agreed on further counterterrorism cooperation” and expressed willingness to “establish bilateral counterterrorism consultation mechanisms”.

China has been pushing for peace solutions as it boosts its investment in the region, including brokering a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has said it is ready to assist peace efforts between Israel and Palestine.

“The [trilateral] dialogue occurs at a time of major changes in the diplomacy of the Middle East and South Asia. Local states are increasing their economic and security engagement both bilaterally and multilaterally through new [US-led] initiatives like the Abraham Accords, the Negev Forum, or I2U2,” said Jean-Loup Samaan, senior research fellow at National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

But although these kinds of talks build “a regional momentum”, they could hardly counter the US initiatives with the Arab states in the region, he said.

Still, China is not aiming to “lead” regional security forces, but rather is trying to meet needs that are shared by the three countries, said Yan Wei, a professor at China’s Northwest University.

“The security and stability of [Pakistan, Iran or neighbouring] countries are closely related to China, as they are important, if not core, countries of the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” said Yan.

Source: South China Morning Post